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Can We Live – And Be Modern?: Decolonization, Indigenous Modernity, and Hip Hop

March 12, 2015

by Kyle T. Mays

Quite frankly, living as an Indigenous person in the United States of Amerikkka is difficult. For me, adding my blackness to the mix makes it even more challenging. But this essay is not about the difficulty of living in a settler colonial society, where we live in a constant state of occupation/colonialism/racism and other forms of violence; that is a fact of life for all of us (to varying degrees): Indigenous, Black, white–everyone. Instead, this essay is specifically about how we–Indigenous people–relate to one another, and how we understand ourselves living in contemporary society, as modern subjects.

Our cultures are an important part of decolonizing ourselves in a settler colonial society. By highlighting culture, I am not excluding the material reality of the everyday needs of Indigenous communities, including land, water, food, education, housing, etc. Decolonization is a process whereby we work to cleanse ourselves of the ubiquitous nature of colonialism and that cleansing must happen daily, and takes many forms. This means that our decolonizing efforts engage with modernity.

The idea of modernity is a complicated one, though I mean it in its simplest form: how whites have used ideas and representations of Indigenous people to construct their selves (Deloria, 1998; O’Brien, 2010). In this sense, then, being modern is associated with being white and literally living in modern times; and, being Indigenous means being non-white, in this case, Indigenous, and lacking the ability to live in a world that has passed them by – at least that is how the narrative goes. Modernity is negatively used and mobilized not only by whites but also Indigenous people, through the rhetoric of ‘tradition’. In contrast, I look to reclaim and regenerate the concept of Indigenous modernity to explain, in part, how Hip Hop helps move us towards a decolonized future, one which challenges assumptions about Indigenous people being incapable of living in the present, as modern subjects. I describe this process below.

We should embrace what Anishinaabe scholar Scott Richard Lyons calls “indigenous modernity.” Lyons writes, “to embrace [indigenous] modernity is to usher in other modern concepts (not all of them necessarily, but some of them, and I’d say the ones we want), including the concept of decolonization” (p. 305). Indigenous people have embraced Hip Hop as a modern culture/concept, too.

Indigenous Hip Hop contradicts the modern/traditional construct in two ways. One, Hip Hop is something that is not easily contained. Hip Hop, as an art form, emerged out of the poverty-stricken Black and Brown communities of New York City; it has now reached the four corners of the world, creating an anthem for the oppressed around the globe, and causing Hip Hop historian Jeff Chang (2007) to say that it’s a hip hop world. Hip Hop has also reached Indigenous communities as well. Second, Hip Hop is an expression of community and self. As Indigenous people participate in and produce Hip Hop, as a modern cultural art form, they contradict the idea that Indigenous people are relics of the past, incapable of engaging with and producing modernity. Indigenous Hip Hop artists and producers, by taking up Hip Hop, a cultural artifact that emerged out of urban spaces, also challenge mainstream conceptions of the incompatibility of Indigenous people and urban spaces.

However, too often, we tend to view Indigenous Hip Hop through simplistic notions of good and bad or, dare I say, “traditional” and “non-traditional” instead of embracing the great diversity of what it means to be Indigenous today, or at the very least exploring the possibilities of how it is expressed, or what it might mean in the future. I want to propose, very briefly, ways that we can decolonize ourselves by embracing indigenous modernity through Indigenous Hip Hop.

Perhaps one of the first things we can do to decolonize ourselves is to rid ourselves of the modern/traditional binary. Time and again, we judge Indigenous people and the cultures that we produce through the false lens of “modern/traditional.” We must ask ourselves important questions: what does it mean to be traditional? Who gets to determine what traditional is or is not? And what does it mean to be modern and live in modern times? Can we live, and continue creating new meanings of what it means to be Indigenous?

Yes, of course we can! Surely prior to European colonization our ancestors learned from other Indigenous communities that informed how they viewed themselves in relation to others and land. I bet it also informed their cultural practices too – they likely embraced certain parts of other cultures, tried some things out and, if it didn’t work for them, they discarded it. Why is it that we can’t do the same thing?

Returning back to Hip Hop, the Hip Hop(s) that Indigenous people produce should all be placed on the table, and we as a community should analyze it, interpret it, and understand under what conditions it was produced and what impact it might have on our communities, and those outside of it. For example, we should interrogate comments like “that young man is just trying to be Black” (a comment I heard not long ago from an adult criticizing a young Indigenous Hip Hop artist). I think an underlying point of that comment is that this young person is not acting quite ‘Indigenous enough’ – whatever that means. While Hip Hop is a Black art form, especially in language (Alim, 2007; Smitherman, 1994), Indigenous people make it their own, rhyming out their own lived realities, in both reserve/ation and urban spaces. Still, we should talk about the implications of this belief, and how it places unfair expectations and limits on our youth. We should not place limits on the pluralisms and possibilities of being Indigenous in modern times.

Not long ago, I was giving a lecture in front of college students on the contemporary representations of Indigenous people. I had the students watch Supaman’s “Prayer Loop Song” and Chief’s track “Blowed,” featuring Snoop Dogg. Student responses were surprising. After spending about an hour trying to break down stereotypes about Indigenous people, which I thought was happening, the students liked Supaman better. It was not because of Chief’s hyper-masculine, misogynistic video; it was because Supaman looked more “Native,” or “authentic” to them. I thought to myself – damn, I just failed as a teacher.

I openly expressed to them that I was making a false dichotomy between two artists. It didn’t matter. They were still caught up into ideas about what modern and traditional were, even after spending an hour challenging as many stereotypes about Indigenous people as I could. The point, here, though, is that both mainstream society and Indigenous communities have placed unfair expectations about how to express Indigeneity. Again, we would do well to embrace the great diversity that makes up our communities, including art forms; we should not limit Indigenous expressions with archaic notions of “authenticity.”

We have a lot of work to do in order to decolonize both our societies and our communities if we want to truly embrace Indigenous modernity. Hip Hop can be one avenue through which we do this. Decolonizing ourselves means the putting into practice of the complex and diverse ways that we embody and live out our Indigenous selves beyond the “traditional” or colonial identity politics such as “full-blooded”. Practices of Indigenous Hip Hop allow us to embrace these complexities and forge decolonial modernities that embrace every person in our communities. If we don’t come to terms with how we understand our relationship to the past, recognize where we’re at now, and creatively reimagine what it might mean to be Indigenous in the future, we will perpetuate the same forms of colonization that the white man placed on us long ago: that we are relics of the past, incapable of being modern. Let’s decolonize ourselves and put into practice how all Native lives matter – not just the “traditional” or the “full-blooded” ones.


Bamaappii (until later),

Kyle T. Mays


Kyle Mays is a Black/Saginaw Chippewa transdisciplinary scholar of urban history, Indigenous Studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Gender and Racial Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000, examines the role of Indigenous people and indigeneity in the development of modern Detroit. You can follow him on Twitter @mays_kyle.


Works Cited

Samy Alim, Roc the Mic: The Language of Hip Hop Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Jeff Chang, “It’s a Hip-Hop World.” Foreign Policy, 163, (November-December, 2007), pp. 58-65.

Philip Deloria, Playing Indian. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

Scott Richard Lyons, “Actually Existing Indian Nations: Modernity, Diversity, and the Future of Native American Studies.” American Indian Quarterly, 35, 3, (summer 2011), pp. 294-312.

Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Geneva Smitherman, “ ‘The Chain Remain the Same’: Communicative Practices in the Hip Hop Nation. The Black Scholar, 28, 1, (1997), pp. 3-25.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2015 5:01 pm

    Hi Kyle, really appreciate your work and the ideas you shared here. My comment is about the reaction your class had to watching the two videos. I think I’m understanding the problem of the ideas of modernity and whiteness being so closely intertwined, and how that reinforces stereotypes about how indigenous folks should be. And what I’m understanding is that when the audience “liked Supaman better” and justified by saying he was more “authentic,” you were disappointed. Personally, I liked Supaman more as well because his instrumental and vocal talent and his message. Chief… his flow wasn’t really that great, his lyrics weren’t that interesting, and, ya, just couldn’t vibe with the hyper-masculinity. So I can understand how the audience would sway towards Supaman for those reasons, beyond the authenticity debate. But I think I would be disappointed as well if their analysis didn’t go into the problematics of Chief’s misogyny and how Chief’s indigenous modernity doesn’t “forge decolonial modernities that embrace every person in our communities,” because of his gender representations. I’m guessing that didn’t come up in the discussion? Again, appreciate your work. –James

  2. laniteves permalink
    March 18, 2015 5:18 pm

    Very much appreciate this piece. I have encountered similar issues and critiques of my own work on Hawaiian hip-hop. I think one of the biggest challenges is that people are still very much holding onto this idea of the “real” or “authentic” or “pure” subject that they believe indigenous people must embody – even in modernity. This, unfortunately is also very present in Native communities especially when there is a nationalist struggle. Mahalo for your work!

  3. The New Manifest Destiny permalink
    March 28, 2015 12:04 am

    This is great response to the idea that being traditional is the only way to be native with integrity.
    With all ignorant naive honesty, how is the use of hip hop not appropriation? Is appropriation only a dominant v subjugated “cultural commerce” relation?


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